Last week brought the two-year anniversary of the tragedy that took place at Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza, the home of a handful of fast fashion garment factories, which collapsed on April 24, 2013. The details that emerged shortly after the tragedy were harrowing: over three thousand people were in the building at the time of the collapse, over two thousand were injured by the collapse, and over one thousand lost their lives.
Sometimes Amy Mains wears black yoga pants to work. She adds a scarf, accessories, and a shirt long enough to cover her backside. "Just making sure everything is as crisp as it can be when you're wearing tights," she said.
Like many office workers, Mains, 31, wants three things from her workwear: comfort, convenience, and a professional look. Her go-to Lululemons meet two out of three, allowing her to switch from her San Francisco communications job to a studio without need of a gym bag: "It's primarily for comfort, but I do a lot of yoga," she said.
On the style front, though, a few bangles and a long shirt can't distract from the fact she's wearing clothing made for sweating, not working. Her yoga pants may be a welcome escape from the restrictive tyranny of shift dresses, but they still aren't entirely office-appropriate. Mains knows this, reserving the stretch pants for days when she won't see many other humans.
Companies selling "athleisure" want to change that. The gym and yoga studio don't suffice for sporty clothing brands these days: They want their stuff worn all day, every day, as with the casual, basic button-ups, tees, and slacks found at Gap and H&M. Athletic clothes long ago spilled onto the sidewalk as streetwear and can even be acceptable for going out at night. Activewear sales increased 15 percent last year, thanks in part to such companies as Lululemon Athletica Inc., Nike Inc., and Athleta Inc., which sell workout clothes trendy enough to wear outside the gym. The sell is convenience: no need to change out of a pair of buttery leggings when making the transition from SoulCycle to the grocery store and then to a bar to meet friends.
A shift in workplace fashion spearheaded by brands isn't unprecedented. In the '90s, Dockers's khakis became a business casual uniform staple (for men) because of a marketing campaign by parent company Levi Strauss & Co. "Everybody was trying to explain what business casual was," said Edward Yost, a human relations business partner at Society of Human Resource Management, who, at 50, is a young baby boomer.
As offices started relaxing dress codes, Levi's created "A Guide to Casual Businesswear," a pamphlet sent to 25,000 HR managers that showed a variety of business casual looks that all happened to feature Dockers. The retailer also held seminars, put on fashion shows, and maintained a toll-free number for those who had questions about business casual. "More so than anything else, it said: Ah! That's what it is," said Yost. "Levi's defined it."
While the masses have embraced yoga pants as today's almost-anywhere pants, the boss still hasn't. "Even in casual workplaces, can people wear leggings? Probably not," said Victoria Gutierrez, a 31-year-old consultant based in Atlanta whom one friend described as "a picture of well-put-together, modern work wear." Most workplaces barely let employees wear jeans every day: Only 36 percent of companies surveyed by SHRM officially allow people to go casual more than one day a week. And even offices that allow casual dress often have explicit bans on leggings.
The weekend dominance of activewear hasn't been enough to maintain the category's growth. Sales figures for tights and capris have fallen 6 percent since the beginning of 2015, according to SportsOneSource, a data research firm. Getting people to roll out their comfy gear for the grim fluorescent lights of work wouldn't just affirm the sartorial supremacy of yoga pants, but it might give sales a much needed boost. This probably won't be a hard sell, as a Nielsen survey found that 75 percent of working women change into something more comfortable when they get home.
Shoppers are already opting for all-day items that make sense in the office and out. Ponte pants, for example, are a firm yet stretchy style with an elasticized waist—an industrial strength version of yoga pants that have become a workplace staple. Owners of Ann Taylor Inc.'s Ponte Pant, which gets hundreds of 5-star reviews online, described them as "perfect for day, play, work, and night."
Three young clothiers have seen this casual future and are among those leading the charge into your office. At Carbon38, an online athletic-wear shop that sells such high-end labels as Lisa Marie Fernandez and Lucas Hugh, the workplace is being won with style tips. The company has a guide called "Athleisure at the office." In it, Carbon38 employees pose for photo shoots in their typical work wear, like a snug, all-black neoprene dress and a matching jacket with mesh sleeves. One of them shared her stretchy-style wisdom: "A prep-inspired top paired with a cool printed pair of spandex is my go-to look." She's wearing Carbon 38's $130 Polonium legging, which has a gloomy sea printed on its Poly-Lycra blend fabric.
"Our whole mentality is that activewear is the new ready-to-wear," said Caroline Gogolak, 30-year-old co-founder and president of Carbon38. “Activewear is definitely work-appropriate."
In 2015, the retailer began selling its own clothing line, with such items as dresses, stretchy blazers, anoraks, and parkas all made of athletic fabrics. Any of these styles–even the skintight jumpsuits and butt-hugging leggings–can be combined with more traditional office garb to land somewhere in the middle. At least that's the pitch Gogolak is making to office workers. "It's wearing those traditional pieces along with the leggings," she said.
Outdoor Voices, an activewear company founded in 2013, shuns the blazing neon hues typical of gym gear in favor of a more muted palette. Founder Tyler Haney, 27, hawks versatility, betting that shoppers are willing to wear performance items as their daily uniform because they want to be perpetually prepped for action. "If it's more comfortable, why wouldn't I wear it all the time?" said Haney.
In a whimsical post on its website, Outdoor Voices even recommends a variety of stretches that can be done right at your desk, relieving stress while on conference calls or at the water cooler. Of course, its models are wearing the label's stretch crepe joggers and track pants, the "perfect fabric for an in-office stretch date." Perhaps this is what bosses fear most about this trend: Yoga pants in the office may actually lead to yoga.
Lululemon, ruler of the yoga mat with its $2 billion in annual revenue, is even poking its head into the workday world. Earlier this year, it started selling experimental activewear for New York commuters at a single store called Lululemon Lab. It plans to feed its best new design aspects back into the main Lululemon lines.
Employees want some version of work-appropriate yoga pants, even if it's unclear what that looks like. "I'm looking for things that aren't going to wrinkle, that are machine washable, and polished enough for my clients," said Gutierrez, the consultant. She doesn't see herself wearing a yoga pantsuit soon but looks for elements of athleisure in her work wear. "To breathe, not wrinkle, and do all those things is great."
In general, casual dress habits are already spilling over into our work lives. "We are so used to clothes that stretch, we're used to wearing sneakers, and a lot of these elements are being integrated into the daily wardrobe," said Roseanne Morrison, fashion director at trend forecaster Doneger Group. Two of the "stylish" men featured in this New York Times article about fashion at the office are wearing sweatpants and sneakers. "Comfort is really the motivator."
So perhaps it'll take small steps to get cube farmers decked out in pliable clothes. Some brands, such as menswear label Ministry of Supply, exist to make dress shirts and blazers that mimic the aesthetic of regular clothes but infuse them with all sorts of performance aspects: collars that don't lose their shape, multi-directional stretch, moisture-wicking fibers. The clothes conform with business casual, even business formal, culture. In a marketing stunt, one co-founder successfully ran a half marathon decked out in a Ministry of Supply suit.
"We need to be respectful of the accepted aesthetics," said Aman Advani, 31, co-founder of Ministry of Supply. "People want to make jumps, but they don't want to take huge leaps."